“The sense of taste is feared because it is so vivid and so puissant. There is little danger that the average man will be so passionately enamoured of picture, statue or sonata that he will forget to the detriment of his health to eat and sleep.”
—H. Warner Allen, The Romance of Wine (1931)
I suggested last month that there were some instructive correlations between wine and classical music that folks who care about music should ponder, and I have been spending many sleepless hours (pace Warner Allen) pondering just that. But at the time of my original essay, I assumed that the wine business was having fewer problems than we are. However, an article I read last week in the U.S. Airways magazine offers a less optimistic prognosis (“How Wineries Will Fail in the 21st Century”). According to its author, Alder Yarrow of vinography.com, the wine industry is out of touch with the current market, particularly in the United States:
For the last 18 months, if your wine is over $50, well then you can pretty much forget it unless it has 97 points (or something like that). […] Wineries need to start connecting with people and building an intimacy that really is not there now.
Yarrow’s assessment of the current scene and his suggestions for a more sustainable future model feel perversely like so many conversations I’ve had with people about the music industry over the past five years. The classical music business and the wine business in the United States have both traditionally marketed themselves on the elite and ultimately somewhat pretentious conceit of masterpieces whose unchallengeable provenance would be determined by aesthetes. But in a world where everything is relative, there are no masterpieces. There is, however, the bargain basement. And in tough economic times, even that basement has trouble attracting customers.
Friends, innocent bystanders, and readers of these pages are all too familiar with my post-judgmental manifestoes over the years. At the heart of my polemics is an unquenchable curiosity which only an omnivorous approach, rather than an exclusionary aesthetic one, can satisfy. Hence my desires to understand all music, visit all countries, drink wine made from every grape varietal, etc., rather than engage in a futile quest for “the best.” So, I had to read an article I chanced upon while leafing through the latest issue of Food and Wine magazine (April 2010) whose title piqued my interest for obvious non-oenophilic reasons—”Is Greatness Overrated?” Sure enough, about a page into the article, the author (Lettie Teague) described a friend who assiduously avoided drinking anything emanating from a high-end bottle, assuming such fare was only for connoisseurs who had devoted a lifetime to being able to comprehend the nuances:
Don’t serve me a great wine (italics mine); I won’t appreciate it. […] I won’t know how to describe it properly.
Sound familiar? Remember the people who could and would be fans of classical music, and by extension and more likely the new music being presented in classical music venues, if only we could make the experience of entering a concert hall somehow less intimidating?
I have usually countered such arguments by saying that for many people the experience of going into a club can be even more intimidating—after all, it is way harder to figure out how to be cool than how to be proper. Everyone has a basic understanding of what proper means, but cool is ever changing and inconsistent from venue to venue. Of course, there’s no hard and fast requirement to be cool or proper in any space. I always find it amusing to see people decked out to the nines when attending operas or symphony orchestra concerts, as if the clothes affected the way you hear music. Obviously, in those instances it is less about those folks having an experience than their being an experience for someone else, e.g. they are there to be seen. And the same is true for the cool uniform du jour at clubs. But frequent attendees to any venue eventually realize that if the folks there give you funny looks because your shirt is the wrong color or your shoes are not a certain brand, that’s their problem. I still need to figure out an equivalently glib retort to the wine snobs.